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A crowded marriage

Phillips takes next step in impressive career



Constance Douglas grew up in poverty and graduated to a job as a sales clerk in a London stationery. There she was rescued in a most unlikely fashion, catching the eye of a medical researcher, a man of means and intense interest in her. Here, just as Constance finds herself overjoyed with Joseph Barton's wooing, their wedding and a lavish honeymoon in Italy, matters become gray -- and gothic.

As novelist Arthur Phillips unfurls a well-told tale of mystery and torments both worldly and otherworldly, the struggles of the Bartons and their young daughter, Angelica, prove suspenseful, deceptive and dark. Angelica brims with shady motives, alternative viewpoints (events unfold from four vantage points) and a slippery sense of truth.

Phillips depicts Victorian England with familiar comfort, but adds a bit of bite to his scenery, as well. The best example: Joseph Barton, it turns out, isn't the pioneer of medical research he presents himself to be with Constance. Instead, he's ensnared in a middle-management role at a research lab, working amid the anguished howls and piercing cries of dogs being tested in all manner of unspeakable ways.

One of the novel's best scenes traces Constance's impromptu decision to visit Joseph at work for the first time. Joseph works in a one-story, windowless brick building, part of a vast, maze-like complex of research offices. It bears an atrocious smell and emits little light. Walking through her husband's medical dungeon, filled with colleagues and superiors, Constance feels suffocated.

"They all wanted her to vanish, imagined their own women in this dark, reeking world," Phillips writes. "The men stared at Joseph, too, demanding in still silence that he repair this breach in their black secret."

Both Joseph and Constance are horrified by her visit, but for different reasons. Constance sees the suffering of the animals, the cruelty meted out by Joseph and others -- and it confirms her suspicions of his penchant for inflicting pain without conscience as well as a furtive nature. Joseph views his wife's unannounced invasion of his workplace, and subsequent disapproval, as signs of her disregard for everything his life entails. This marriage, in other words, doesn't need an extreme makeover, it needs an extreme end. Think Sid and Nancy without the drugs, but comparable mental illness.

Not only is the marriage unstable, it is crowded. Angelica, a beautiful but troubled and difficult 4-year-old, lives with manipulative parents. She learns her lessons well, in that regard.

Constance suffered three miscarriages before giving birth to Angelica -- and almost died delivering her. Readers must grapple with whether Constance is so consumed with motherhood that she will risk death once and again to have children, or whether Joseph pushed her to take these repeated chances and aims to make her attempt another pregnancy. All the while, Joseph and Constance slip into madness in their own ways: He becomes obsessed with her instability and his inadequate command of his crumbling household; she turns to a not-ready-for-prime-time matronly actor turned grafter-spiritualist.

This latter interloper, Anne Montague, fills Constance with all manner of sorcery and potions and tales. At one point, Constance, in an attempt to ward off spirits in what most certainly is a haunted house of some kind, takes Anne's advice and sets fire to the perimeter of Angelica's bed even as the little girl lies sleeping in it. A gust of wind fills the fire with added life, prompting screams and arousing an enraged Joseph to stumble into a most atypical moment of family bonding.

Like everyone else in the house (including the housekeeper, who is part of Anne Montague's scouting network and shares in the spiritualist's consulting fees), Anne Montague becomes entwined in her own way. She finds Constance ineffably affecting and promises to help her escape Joseph at the same time Joseph is plotting to have Constance dragged to an asylum. That pivotal point is where Phillips deftly drops his murder into the plot -- or doesn't.

It is a fine performance, the latest step in an impressive young career. Phillips earned strong reviews with his debut novel Prague, a tale of expatriates, and then followed with The Egyptologist, which, like his latest work, played with the notions of fact and fiction as well as the blurry lines of memory and motivation (not to mention highly unreliable narrators).

That Phillips writes with verve bolsters his case, as well. A typical example: "The moon thickened, its swelling nearly complete, and here and there threads of cloud drew faces across its surface, scowls turned slightly away, significant glances withheld in shadows."

And, as any reader of Angelica will soon appreciate, all of the rooms -- and characters -- are haunted by ceaseless shadows.

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